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KARLOVY VARY — A shiftless Moldovan teen slowly tries to climb out of the gutter in The Unsaved, the bleak but effective feature debut of Moldova-born director Igor Cobileanski. Written by renowned Romanian New Wave helmer Corneliu Porumboiu (Cannes Camera d’Or winner 12:08 East of Bucharest) and the director, this is a quiet and slow-footed character study punctuated by blackly comic moments in which, in typical New Wave fashion, the characters’ bad behavior and good intentions slowly turn into a noose around the protagonist’s neck.
Though less virtuosic and somewhat more predictable than Romania’s best output, this is nonetheless solidly made art house fare. Crisp photography by local star cinematographer Oleg Mutu (Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and the fact it portrays a country rarely seen on screen should further help the movie travel after its world premiere in Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition.
Viorel (Igor Babiac) is a 19-year-old misfit who lives with his widowed mother (Angela Ciobanu), who regularly scolds him for not having a job or any ambition. To pass the time, he helps out his pal, Goose (Sergiu Voloc), who distributes weed via an ingenious system in which his clients leave money in envelopes in their mailboxes and Viorel exchanges the dough for grass under the cover of darkness.
Goose funnels all his earnings into making his own motored hang glider, but Viorel, though happy to help, doesn’t seem to have anything he’s equally passionate about. This changes when he starts noticing the pretty owner of one of the mailboxes, the hairdresser Maria (Ela Ionescu), who turns out to be the girlfriend of Goose’s former parter-in-crime, Tomcat (never actually seen), who’s in jail because he was busted.
Though Viorel’s initially extremely uneasy around Maria — his charming cluelessness is played with a beautiful eye for detail by newcomer Babiac — he seems to know that he needs to insist on seeing her. And his efforts pay off, as soon she’s having him over for dinner. A job as a kitchen aid at the local police station, insisted on by his mother and offered to him by Vivi (Igor Caras-Romanov), a colleague of his late dad’s, seems to finally set Viorel on the path to a brighter future, though his dream of shacking up with Maria is suddenly threatened by a shocking discovery involving Vivi and the potential release of Tomcat, two events that send the slow-moving proceedings suddenly into a tailspin.
It is in the film’s second half that the grip on an initially rather loosely plotted story unexpectedly tightens in a way that recalls Porumboiu’s own Police, Adjective, which was also partially set at a small-town police station and explored notions of good and bad in a law-enforcement environment that was thoroughly corrupted. Small details or insignificant-seeming supporting characters, such as Viorel’s fellow potato-peeler at the station, suddenly click into place and the clash between the characters’ intentions and the actual outcome is what brings the film to a satisfying — if very bleak — close.
Metaphors, such as the inability of Goose’s hang glider to take flight, are subtle yet clearly present, and a strain of Porumboiu’s trademark dark, slightly absurdist humor also occasionally surfaces, such as in a conversation about which animal sound is the most feasible in case Viorel needs to warn Goose while the latter’s stealing a car.
Acting is very much in the Romanian New Wave mold of unaffected realism, and Unsaved‘s general look is similarly stripped down to its bare essentials, with Mutu’s cinematography bathing the proceedings in a softly diffused light. The lack of music further reinforces the general dreariness.
The original title, La limita de jos a cerului, literally means “The Lower Limit of the Sky.”
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (East of the West)
Production company: Saga Film
Cast: Igor Babiac, Sergiu Voloc, Ela Ionescu, Igor Caras-Romanov, Angela Ciobanu
Director: Igor Cobileanski
Screenwriters: Igor Cobileanski, Corneliu Porumboiu
Producer: Alexandru Teodorescu
Executive producers: Mihaela Popescu, Daniel Burlac
Director of photography: Oleg Mutu
Production designer: Adrian Suruceanu
Costume designer: Lilia Ixari
Editors: Eugen Kelemen, Christina Ionescu
Sales agent: Saga Film
No rating, 80 minutes
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